While representatives of labor and management haggle over the future of the 1987 season, the National Football League will try to derive some comfort in this opening weekend, which finds four of the league's top teams in direct confrontation.
Seattle's visit to Denver today and the defending champion New York Giants' game in Chicago Monday night figure to be the highlights of week one.
Unless, of course, the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association can take steps this weekend toward reaching a new collective bargaining agreement and avoid a threatened strike.
Players on the league's 28 teams will try to put aside labor issues for the time being and simply play. The all-consuming question, as it is every year, is, "Can the Super Bowl champion repeat?"
The Giants seem about as prepared to win back-to-back titles as any team since the 1982-83 Redskins. But there are so many other uncertainties. Is this the last season opener for Chicago's legendary Walter Payton? Can the Raiders, Cowboys, Dolphins and Steelers return to respectability? Is it possible that the Steelers are the worst team in the entire American Football Conference?
Have the Redskins been able to close the gap between themselves and the only team they couldn't handle last year, the Giants? Are the Seahawks, picked to go all the way by many prognosticators, simply the NFL's version of the Cleveland Indians -- highly touted but unable to fulfill expectations? And what will happen to injured quarterback Jim McMahon, who was described in Chicago this week as "the skull that so menacingly has adorned the Bears' crossbones?"
Will the contributions from the league's newest additions -- Vinny Testaverde, Brian Bosworth and Bo Jackson -- amount to half as much as their preseason hullabaloo?
Surely, the answers will be provided in due time, provided there isn't a players' strike Sept. 22.
"There are so many things to look forward to in this season," NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle wistfully said last week.
One thing to look forward to, thanks to a slight rule change, is healthier quarterbacks. The new rule is that a defensive player has only one step to hit the quarterback after he has released the ball, not two steps.
Nobody legislated that defenses reinstate the old-fashioned 4-3 with a slight twist, but it is already the fastest-growing strategic trend.
Rozelle and the club owners keep saying that there has rarely been more "competitive balance" (the replacement phrase for "parity") in the league and the week one schedule seems to support that theory.
Looking for a first-week upset? How about Indianapolis, which finished the 1986 season with three consecutive victories, over Cincinnati, or Buffalo, with new coach Marv Levy and a more stable Jim Kelly, over the Jets?
The NFC East may be the home of the Super Bowl champion, but it may be no stronger than the NFC Central, if Minnesota improves on last season's surprising 9-7 finish.
The San Francisco 49ers could get off to a big start, opening against the lowly Steelers this afternoon in Pittsburgh. But the Los Angeles Rams, who open at the Astrodome, have every reason to feel giddy about themselves.
The Rams found the quarterback they had been seeking last year in Jim Everett, and will start to find out today if Everett will benefit, as expected, from new offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese (one of the air traffic controllers for Don Coryell's "Air Coryell" offense at San Diego a few years ago). Rams Coach John Robinson says his team won't forget about Eric Dickerson, but Zampese will run the offense.
Three coaches will start anew: Levy at Buffalo, Frank Gansz at Kansas City and Marion Campbell for his second go-round with Atlanta.
Today's game at Mile High Stadium between Denver and Seattle could be a preview of the AFC championship, just as the Bears-Giants clash Monday could be only the first of two confrontations between the two teams before the season is over. But Cleveland, New England and perhaps Cincinnati in the AFC, the 49ers, Redskins, Rams and perhaps Vikings in the NFC, and undoubtedly some teams that will surprise the entire league, will have some say about that in the next few months.